Midway through George Monbiot’s Regenesis: Feeding the World without Devouring the Planet, in conversation with Iain Tolhurst (‘Tolly’), a stockfree organic farmer in the Chilterns, Monbiot tells a joke against himself by quoting Tolly’s words: “I’ve pissed people off. But nothing changes if you don’t piss people off. I expect you know all about that.”
Indeed. Monbiot has been a fiercely tenacious environmental and political activist for the last thirty-five years, and a prolific writer and journalist. But Regenesis promises to be his magnus opus and, perhaps surprisingly, not at all a book that will piss people off. It is more a consensual tract that draws on substantial research, holding up a mirror to help us see more clearly. What most of us have on our plates involves farming practices that are massively unsustainable. If we didn’t know this, then we haven’t been paying attention. Regenesis helps focus that attention. No less an authority than Professor Sir David King is quoted on the dust jacket: “It is in my view one of the two or three most important books to appear this century”. Other luminaries quoted there (Robert Macfarlane, David Wallace-Wells, Yanis Varoufakis, Sir Tim Smit and Kate Raworth) appear to be similarly impressed.
Farming and agriculture are not subjects that have hitherto attracted my attention, but a review of Monbiot’s latest book triggered the purchase. I’ve followed his writing in The Guardian for several decades. His passion and his style of writing - following Orwell’s own advice that “good prose should be transparent, like a window pane” - I have always found engaging, never off-pissing. And it is absolutely the case that Monbiot has brought these skills to bear in Regenesis. Indeed, within months of the book’s publication, Monbiot was awarded the Orwell prize for journalism. The timing can be no accident.
The first half of the book surveys the ecological havoc that our food production systems are wreaking. This is presented with a blizzard of statistics, with footnotes scaffolding the book with an 86-page section of notes and references. At one point, Monbiot describes how he set aside a month to read the scientific papers about ‘holistic’ agricultural systems mentioned by a particular group of ranchers. This diligence - and even-handedness - is a hallmark of Monbiot’s work, helping readers feel confident that his workings are sound.
The mess we’re in with our food production is shocking. Soil science is little understood. Our food supply system has little inbuilt resilience. Half the calories that farmers ‘grow’ are used for raising livestock. Chinese pig manure causes more river and lake pollution than does its industry. Seventy-five percent of the antibiotics sold in the EU and the US is used on livestock. Although microplastics are removed from sewage in the UK, they are then reintroduced into the sludge that water companies sell to farms as fertilizer. Seven percent of the UK’s landmass is occupied by people, but 51% is occupied by livestock. While 100 grams of soya protein require 2 square meters of land, the same amount of chicken protein requires 7, pork protein 10, milk protein 27, beef an astonishing 163 and lamb a stratospheric 185 square meters. If we all switched to a plant-based diet, farmland could be reduced by 76%, reducing greenhouse gas volumes created by farming by 60%. These numbers come thick and fast.
Yet several stop readers in their tracks. Consider this one: if greenhouse gases from all other sectors than farming were magically eliminated, on current trends, by 2100 food production alone would bust the entire carbon budget 2 or 3 times over. The trend lines, however measured, are genuinely unsustainable. Though this catastrophe could be ameliorated by individual action, without government action the scale of the crisis will overwhelm us.
The second half of Regenesis considers alternatives to the current methods of food production. None are perfect, but all offer to feed us “without devouring the planet”, as the book’s subtitle has it. The first of these, the aforementioned Tolly, seems able to conjure vegetables and fruit from an impossibly flinty, planetary epidermis. Eschewing livestock, Tolly grows biodiversity. Vegetables are merely a bi-product, he says. Wild flowers, birds and grasshoppers in profusion accompany the vegetables. In place of compost, Tolly uses woodchip, which is arguably unsustainable at a larger scale, although the plan is to produce much of his own. The example is uplifting, a self-critical regenerative, organic farmer, perpetually questioning the detail of how he farms.
There’s a short interlude that should be compulsory reading for policymakers in which Monbiot discusses obesogenic food, the cheapest available to those who have no other option but to buy cheap ‘food’ with a high calorific value which is full of processed carbs and high in fat. People want good food, reasons Fran, a housing association fund-raiser, it’s just that they can’t afford it. What they can afford makes them overweight and ill.
Next to be subjected to Monbiot’s scrutiny is Tim, a no-till advocate in Shropshire. Leaving soil uncut stops the ripping up the fungal hyphae and prevents CO2 release. By ploughing a thin run in the middle of a field which is surrounded by unploughed crop, two versions of the same soil can be compared side by side. The cut one loses 30% of its springtail species count within 24 hours. It also buries the surface straw underground, creating an anoxic layer that creates acidity - not an environment in which to then plant a new crop. Abjuring the plough enabled Tim to eliminate the use of pesticides, and reduce his use of fertilizers by 15% - and his use of tractor diesel. He still uses herbicides (Roundup), but less of it than his peers use - which seems a drastic flaw to this method, and closes the organic door to him.
We also meet a Cotswold farmer and agroecologist, Ian, who practices a long and complex rotation to raise soil fertility. In this model, light livestocking of a handful of cows together with a flash graze by a neighbour’s flock of sheep helps return carbon to the soil. Yields are up even though neither pesticides nor fertilizers are used.
There is a further short interlude where Monbiot discusses Kernza a perennial wheatgrass. Unlike annual crops that require the land to be cleared and sown for every harvest, perennials are cut-and-come-again crops that don’t require the land to be smashed to bits to produce our food. Monbiot’s enthusiasm in this section of the book is palpable. The potential promise of reducing erosion and raising carbon-retention is compelling. The agronomists and plant scientists are forging ahead.
Readers are then given a tour of the Solar Foods laboratory in a Helsinki suburb. In shining steel fermentation tanks, a hydrogen-oxygenating soil bacterium is being multiplied. The result is an edible protein from which endless textures and flavours of ‘synthetic meat’ can be derived. This is Quorn on stilts, capable of shrinking to an extraordinary degree the amount of land used to feed mankind. The promise of freeing up land otherwise used to produce livestock is intoxicating. Would I eat anything like this (such as the nutritional fungi protein Fy Protein)? Yes! Where will I be able to buy these products locally?
[Readers who know the Harry Harrison book Make Room, Make Room! and/or the Soylent Green film which was made from it, may blanch at the prospect of food being produced in a laboratory. By coincidence, the 1966 book was set in 1999 and the film was set in 2022. (It was multilingual Edward G. Robinson’s last film. Yes, he spoke seven languages.) It advanced a solution to overpopulation and food shortage on a par with Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal. We need to forget our science fiction and think instead of the promise of science fact so well reported in this 2022 book.]
We have perhaps come to know George Monbiot as a rather hard-headed activist. Regenesis gives depth and shade to that understanding as the book comes over as a humble and generous attempt to advance a deeply humanist set of possibilities. I challenge anyone not to be profoundly moved by the broad sweep of this book and, in particular, by its final paragraph. You will not be pissed off!
Footnote: followers of George Monbiot - of whatever shade - would do well to read two pages on his website. One is his registry of interests, a comprehensive list of his income sources which is an example of how to walk the talk of transparency. The other is his page on career advice, two thousand words of pure gold dust about navigating the possible paths ahead. Chapeau!
[Regenesis : Feeding the World without Devouring the Planet by George Monbiot is available in the UK from Hive.co.uk.]